HC Deb 07 August 1924 vol 176 cc3172-86

I rise in order to put three or four questions to the Secretary of State on a question which is not identical with that which we have been discussing, although it is strictly cognate. The point on which I desire information from the Government is as to the present position in the Balkans and the Near East. I want to make it perfectly clear that with the purely domestic affairs of important States we have neither the right nor the desire to interfere, but domestic affairs in the Balkans have a very awkward way of becoming matters of international concern. We can rawer forget that for just 100 years the Balkans have been the storm centre of European diplomacy. We cannot forget, some of us, at least, cannot forget, that the Great War of 1914 came from the Balkans. In my judgment, Belgrade, far more than Belgium, was the essential cause of that War. I am very deeply interested in affairs in the Near East, not commercially, not financially, but simply form the point of view of a student of affairs, and I am more particularly interested at the present moment with regard to the Bolshevist activities in the Balkans. Hon. Members who follow at all closely the progress of affairs in the Near East will, of course, be conscious of the fact, the palpable, painful fact, that there is lying about in the Balkans at the present moment a vast amount of very inflammable material, and a match dropped, either carelessly or by felonious intent, might very easily set all Europe once more in a blaze. Therefore, I make no apology to the Government and to the House for asking for some information from the Government on this matter before the House adjourns for a two months' recess.

Look where you will in the States of the Near East, the situation to-day—I say it with a sense of responsibility—is a very precarious one. Look at the situation in Greece, particularly in Greek Macedonia. Look at the situation in the triune kingdom of Jugo-Slavia. Ever since the signature of the armistice there has been a dangerous mood in the new triune kingdom, more particularly in the Croatian part of it. Look at Rumania, more particularly at the Southern Dobruja. Look at Bulgaria. In every one of these States there are ragged edges left by the peace settlement, and there are to-day working certain elements of very dangerous unrest. These matters are probably known to all hon. Members in the House, and I do not need, and I do not propose, to enlarge upon them. I am convinced from what I know that the existing Governments of these States are very sincerely anxious to maintain the peace of the Balkans, and, therefore, as I contend, the peace of Europe. But they have neighbours who do not share their anxiety, who would like to fish in troubled waters, and who have no particular scruples in lending a hand to trouble. I refer, of course, to the great nation, or rather the Government—let me distinguish—which has occupied the attention of the House during the last few days. Those of us who are interested in the Near East have lately had news of very ill-omen. From Yugo-Slavia there has lately reached us news that Mr. Raditch, who is, as hon. Members are aware, I dare say, the leader of the Croatian peasant party, has gone to Moscow, and there given his adherence, which he is perfectly entitled to do, to the Internationals.

But the danger that arises is this. Croatia, or at any rate, a very powerful party in Croatia, is exceedingly dissatisfied with the position assigned to it by the Peace Treaty, and one even hears it whispered that Croatia is already looking back with something of regret to the days of the Hapsburg rule, when it enjoyed, under the Hapsburgs, a very considerable measure of local autonomy. It is notorious to those, at all events, who were interested in the affairs of the Near East, that at the time of the close of the Peace Treaty Croatia was looking for the establishment of some sort of quasi-federal relations with Serbia. Instead of that, Croatia found itself absorbed in an enlarged kingdom of the, Southern Slays, with whom neither in race nor in creed has it everything, or, indeed, very much, in common. Bosnia has been in a somewhat similar position. There is in Bosnia a very considerable and a very important party of Turkified Moslems who, even to-day, would prefer the rule of Constantinople, or even Angora, to that of Belgrade.

2.0 P.M.

I mention these matters very briefly, simply to show that we cannot afford to regard the mission of Mr. Raditch to Moscow as a mere matter of domestic concern. Then we hear, also—at least, some of us have heard—of the journeyings or activities of M. Alexandrov, who, as Members of the House are aware, is the head of the revolutionary organization in Macedonia, and I want to ask the Secretary of State or some responsible Member of the Government whether he can tell us what M. Alexandrov was doing here in London in May, with whom was he in consultation, and for what purpose? The House well knows what a fertile soil is that of Macedonia for the germination of every species of noxious and revolutionary plot. What I want to know from the Government is, what was M. Alexandrov doing here in London in May, and what was the outcome, if any, of his visit? Was he using this country and this city as the place in which to plot against one or more of the existing States?

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being present—


I do not know whether it is any satisfaction to the hon. Member opposite who moved the Count, in the exercise of his undoubted right, to have wasted some of the private Members' time, but that is the only result of his action. I was asking the Under-Secretary what was the object of Mr. Alexandrov's visit to London in May. Is it the case, as rumoured, that he was in this country to plot against one or other of the Governments in the Balkans with whom His Majesty's Government have friendly relations? I have in mind partiticularly, though not exclusively, the Government of the State of Bulgaria. The House is familiar with recent events in that country, and hon. Members are familiar with the overthrow of the Stambolisky Ministry, followed by the murder of Stambolisky himself, and that was a very severe blow to Soviet influences in Bulgaria, and the Soviet Government have been attempting and seeking by various means to recover the influence which, over 14 months ago, they lost.

I do not make any complaint about that. I make no complaint, with this proviso that the means employed to establish these influences in Bulgaria do not threaten the internal order of Bulgaria or the peace of the Balkans, and the stability and security of the diplomatic edifice in Europe. These are questions to which I want an answer from the Government, and I trust that before the Adjournment takes place the Under-Secretary will be in a position to give to this House and the country some information on the point which I have raised. I ask these questions with the sole desire of averting any lurking danger to European peace, and I hope the Government will be able to give the House a very definite assurance that these matters are under their close observation, and that they are prepared to throw the whole weight of their moral support on the side of those who are labouring to maintain in the Balkans the status quo, and to prevent that too fertile soil from again throwing up, what it has thrown up in the past, the noxious weeds of war.


Last night we had a discussion upon the Russian Treaty, or rather the draft Treaty, after a statement had been made by the Under-Secretary of State for War, in which he had not as much time as is customary in order to make a statement of that kind, and if I was unduly severe on him in my remarks I very much regret it. I was simply trying to comment upon the information he gave to the House, but now we have the document I must say that I think it more than justifies some of the criticisms which I directed against it. It is a very serious document, and quite unprecedented. An hon. Member interrupted me and stated that the Treaty of Versailles had never been published before the Prime Minister of the day signed it, but that is not so. The whole draft of the Treaty of Versailles was published some weeks before it was signed. It was published in the newspapers. It was sent out to the Press, and naturally some of the newspapers had not the space to publish the whole of it, but some newspapers published every word of it. Although the draft Treaty was altered in some important particulars afterwards, still it was published, and if it was not debated in Parliament that was not the fault of the Government. If the opposition of the day had demanded any discussion upon the subject, an opportunity would have been conceded to them. Therefore there is nothing in the point that in snaking this demand upon the Government we are taking advantage of the fact that they are in a minority. I am simply putting pressure upon them to do what I did in response to the appeal of the Opposition a hen I had the same responsibility as they have to-day.

Now I come to the question of this Treaty. I want to make it quite clear that I am not opposed to a Treaty with Russia. On the contrary I took weeks to try and negotiate a Treaty with Russia, I do not say on the same lines as this Treaty, but it was partly on the same lines, dealing with debts, claims, and property, and also dealing with what assistance we could give to Russia. All these questions wore debated at great length, and I made every effort within my capacity to establish peace on a permanent footing with Russia. I have never taken the line, that because the theory upon which the Russian organisation and the Russian Government are based wire obnoxious to British opinion, that therefore you ought riot to have any dealings with them. What organisation Russia has, what Government it has, or the principles upon which it governs are matters entirely for the Russian people themselves. Therefore on this point I take the same view as the Under-Secretary, and I have always taken that view.

The hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Morel) attacked me on account of the fact that the Government of which I was the head subsidised civil war. May I say that we were there simply supporting the men who had given us support during the War. We were supporting General Alexieff and the rest of them at a time When Russia was thoroughly defeated, when about half Russia followed one section and half the other. One section made a Treaty with Germany which very much embarrassed the Allies, and the others were still fighting against Germany, and we were simply supporting them, but when it became clear to us that Russia as a whole was deciding in favour of one of those parties, that is that the Soviet Government was the de facto Government of Russia, we withdrew our subsidies, and in the speech referred to by the hon. Gentleman I deprecated any further intervention in the affairs of Russia. I was constantly opposed to such intervention, and I am not claiming any merit on that account, but as Prime. Minister I was responsible, and I accept the responsibility.

I have always been in favour of entering into an agreement with Russia on the ground that the moment you begin to make the internal affairs or even the mis-government of a country a ground for not recognising that Government then diplomatic business comes to an end. There are many other countries where things happen which one cannot acclaim, and this has been the case even within the last few years where force has intervened, but that is not our business. That is the business of the country concerned, and I have never opposed an arrangement or treaty with Russia on that ground. On the contrary, I have been a strong advocate of it, and I did my very best when in a position of responsibility, to carry it through, and my efforts failed very largely because of the Russians themselves putting forward impossible claims, and because they declined to recognise the principles upon which alone civilised government can have relations with other countries. It was not so much a question of recognition as the fact that they wanted assistance, and we were entitled to say, "We cannot assist you unless the principles of conduct which dominate the relations of one nation with another are accepted by you." If obligations of honour entered into by preceding Governments are repudiated, how can you do business with a Government of that kind? It means, if you enter into negotiations with them and they just change the orientation of their politics—if more moderate men give way to more violent men—the next people would repudiate the very bargain you are entering into to-day. For that reason, we felt that before you entered into a treaty with Russia you should know whether they were prepared to accept the conditions which are an essential part of the fabric of civilisation in every land. That is all that we asked. There is a very great difference between that, and an agreement of this kind.

I do not know whether it is too late to ask the Government to pause. My hon. and learned Friend said that you need not bother about it, because really we have not agreed to anything, or it is a matter of no consequence. It is, because you are giving the impression to the people of Russia that you are doing very big things for them, and you are not by this Agreement. The Prime Minister, in his speech, constantly used the word "Agreement," and my hon. and learned Friend said that there was no difference between an agreement and a treaty. There is a very vital difference. For instance, if the parties agree at a Conference—that happens very often—to refer a certain number of questions to a Commission and then say, "If they all agree, we will then consider favourably what assistance we can give you," that is an agreement. That is what happened at the Inter-Allied Conference. I am now assuming for the moment that a loan is advisable. What has happened in the other case? It is assumed there that, if there be complete agreement upon a large number of questions, there will be a loan of £40,000,000 to Germany. Those questions are put to different Commissions, but you do not sign the Treaty before those Commissions have decided, and before you really know whether it is an agreement at all. Therefore, there is a very vital difference between a treaty and an agreement in a Conference.

If I may suggest it to the Government, what really ought to have been done, and what undoubtedly would have been done but for their own political difficulties, would have been to have agreed with the Russians to refer these questions to Commissions, and then to have said to them, "If there be agreement upon them, we regard favourably your demand for assistance." But there is a great difference between that and entering into a definite Treaty, with the Seal of the Sovereign on it, which means, in spite of the fact that Russia is a Republican Government, something which will convey to them a guarantee that we mean to do something, and that we mean to do it on a very big scale.

Let us see what the Government have done in this Treaty, as they call it. Every point in this Treaty is left unsettled—every one. There is not a single point between this country and Russia which is settled in this Treaty—not one. Propaganda, that is already in the Trade Agreement. What are the points in dispute? The liabilities of Russia to us, first of all, as a nation; secondly, to our nationals, those who have advanced money to Russia; and, in the third place, the liability of Russia in respect of property belonging to our nationals, which has been confiscated or destroyed. Every one of those points is left completely unsettled. What is the next point which is left unsettled? The counterclaim of Russia for damages. I would point out how important that is. The counterclaim of Russia for gold, that is left unsettled. The loan is left unsettled. It is very remarkable the way this loan was promised. In Article 12 there are these words: The amount, terms, and conditions of the said loan and the purposes to which it shall be applied shall be defined later on. Every point in connection with the loan is left unsettled. I ask my hon. Friend: Can he point to one subject of dispute between us and Russia which is settled in this so-called Treaty? What a remarkable document to be called a treaty when there is not a single point settled. It is more serious than that. What are the conditions under which the loan, I will not say is to operate, but is to be recommended to this House? It is all very well to say that this House can reject it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool (Mr. Rathbone) that if we say to the Russian people, "We are going to give you this loan,' and we do not give it, then, though we may have very good reasons, there is not a Russian who will not say that it is a breach of faith, and die reputation of Britain and the feeling that the word of an Englishman or the word of a Britisher can always be depended upon will go. I agree with my hon. Friend in that statement. It is very serious. Just let me ask the hon. Gentleman to look at this:— Upon the signature of the Treaty referred to in Article 11, His Britannic Majesty's Government will recommend Parliament to enable them to guarantee the interest and sinking fund of a loan. What is Article 11? Article 11 is a treaty which deals with claims which are referred to in Articles 6 and 8. Will the House observe that there is a gap. Article 7 is left out altogether. Will the House look what Article 7 means? Article 7 refers to the whole of the war loans of the British Government—£600,000,000. That is not to be settled before the loan. What is the next? The question was put by one of the hon. Members for Birmingham (Mr. Hannon) and there was no answer given yesterday, although my hon. Friend promised to give an answer. The Russian Government are putting forward a claim for £10,000,000 of gold which was sent over to this country during the War. They are putting forward a claim to the millions of gold that the Germans seized under the Brest Litovsk Treaty, and which was afterwards taken by the Allies. That is a very considerable sum. I do not know whether anybody remembers the amount.


£30,000,000 or £40,000,000.


That is a total of £50,000,000 of gold which they are claiming as against us. You leave outside £600,000,000 of debt. That will not be settled. The claim of the Russians to £60,000,000 of gold from us—that will not he settled. There is a much more serious thing than that. The claims advanced by the Government of the Union, which means the Soviet, on the ground—a very curious reason was given—of intervention. What is that claim? I have it. I have looked it up. It is a claim that was put in at Genoa, and I have no reason to think that they have changed it. This is a claim that they put in against us for damages by Allied Governments directly or indirectly, and it was for a tiny trifle of 50,000,000,000 gold roubles. There are no particulars with regard to most of it, but they make us responsible for pogroms, which they value at something very high; they claim against us for the occupation of Bessarabia—we never occupied Bessarabia—for loss of revenue, and for something which they call odd Russian property abroad. There is a good deal that is odd about Russia—but there is nothing odder than this particular document.

Will the hon. Gentleman realise for a moment what it means? Before any of these claims are settled, we are to guarantee a loan. All these things will be outstanding. You may have a moderate Government in Russia now—moderate for Russia—but the hon. Gentleman knows, and no one knows better, the struggle that is going on there. It is the sort of struggle that is going on inside the Labour party. [HON. MEMBERS: "And other parties!"] Very likely. Every party has its Right, its Centre and its Left. That is true of every party. [An HON. MEMBER: "How many are there left of your party?"] There will be many more left than will be comfortable for you at the Election, as you have already discovered in the last Election. I do not, however, want to be drawn away by these interruptions; I generally like to address myself to the business before the House.

Suppose that there is a real struggle going on there, as everyone knows there is—a very formidable struggle. Some of the most formidable men there are the men of the extreme Left, and very able men they are. At any moment they may come on top. A quotation has been given from M. Zinovieff, who clearly is for repudiation. Suppose that we have advanced a sum of money to Russia, what have they asked? That question was put last night, and has been put here this morning by my hon. and learned Friend. No answer is forthcoming, but I presume it will be. The claim that they put at Genoa was for a loan of £400,000,000 sterling. At The Hague, I am told, and I have made some inquiries since, they asked for a loan of £300,000,000. They had come down £100,000,000 in a few months, and there have been a good many lapses since then, bat they say it is no use talking about a small amount, and that is true. It is a gigantic country, and they say that the devastation is great, that their railways have been worn out, and that, in order to do what is necessary to put Russia in anything like working order, there must be an advance on an enormous scale. I think there is something in that. They did not realise that no country could have given a loan of that sort, but those were their ideas then.

Suppose that there is a loan, and a pretty large one. In the case of a small loan, the Exports Credits and Trade Facilities schemes would enable us to Jet them have, say, £10,000,000 or £20,000,000; but they would not look at that, and they do not look at it now. I know why they are not satisfied with these proposals. It is because you cannot advance anything approximating to what they are expecting. There will be a liability for interest at the rate of 5¼ per cent., or, perhaps, ¾ per cent. more because you guarantee instead of advancing direct. Suppose that you then claim payment of that. M. Zinovieff says, "Ah, no, no, no! We have a claim of 50,000,000,000 roubles against you which is not settled, which is outstanding; we have a claim of 40,000,000 or £50,000,000 in respect of actual shining gold in your coffers which belongs to us. You had better refund yourselves out of that." What is there to prevent that being done? It is not a repudiation of the loan—not at all; it is a method of payment for them. They will say to you, "Go there. You have the cash; you have the bars of gold there in your cellars. Why should you come to Russia for our honest roubles, whereas you have them there locked up in your own cellars—our own money?"

Without settling any of these questions, it is proposed that Parliament should be invited to guarantee a loan and to enter into a bargain that would not be debatable if it had been between two business men, however friendly. It is no use saying afterwards, "We have not agreed about our claims; we have not agreed about our counter-claims; we have not agreed about our loans or what is going to happen, but"—as the Under-Secretary said—" at any rate, we have agreed to be brothers." That is no good. This is either a business transaction or it is not. I am not going to have it said that, because we object to a thoroughly unbusinesslike agreement, a thoroughly grotesque agreement, such an agreement as has never been submitted by a Government on its responsibility to the House of Commons, an agreement which leaves out every ingredient of settlement, every element, every fact, every figure, and postpones the whole thing—I am not going to have it said that, because we do not agree upon such a proposal as that, we are, therefore, not willing to come to terms with the Russian people. That is not our position.

I do hope that the Government will take the course which not merely every other Government has taken, but which they themselves have taken when they came to discuss matters with the German Government. I do hope that, instead of making this a Treaty, they will make it what it really is, or, at least, ought to be—a preliminary agreement to refer all the disputes to Commissions. When those Commissions have reported, they can on their own responsibility say, "We are willing to go a long way towards assisting you." Personally, I must say at once that I am against a loan. I was against it at Genoa. I do not think there is security for it; I do not think this country can spare it under present conditions. It is a gigantic sum, and it is bound to be if it is to be of the slightest use. No one knows how trade is going to develop during the next few months or years, but I, frankly, am very doubtful about the position. We may need all the resources that we have, with all the reductions in taxation—and we are the most heavily taxed country in the world. There is much to do in the way of development in this country and in the way of development in the Empire. Therefore, I hope that the Government will again reconsider their position, and that, instead of allowing it to go forth to Russia that we are signing, with the seal of the Sovereign, some guarantee to them of a big loan under impossible conditions, we shall just tell them that this is a provisional agreement to examine the difficulties.


I feel that, out of respect to the House, I ought to answer some of the questions which have been put to me.


On a point of Order. I want to put to you, Sir, that a very honourable obligation was come to. It was understood we were to have two short speeches. We have listened to a very long speech following the previous speech, and now we are to have a third on this matter—all taking away from the time allowed us. Honourable obligations between one country and another are important, but the first thing is to have honourable obligations in this House. I am not going to listen quietly while I see obligations solemnly entered into broken by Members who have had long experience, and ought to know how to keep obligations.


The hon. Member had an opportunity of being here to-morrow, and voted against it.


The hon. Member is a stranger to the truth. He ought to tell the truth when he speaks.


You never told the truth in your life.


I think it is consistent with what has occurred that there should be a short reply from the Minister, and that we should then go on to other questions.


There was a definite obligation. You, Sir, said you would allow a couple of short speeches and then that we might get back to business. Two speeches have been made occupying almost an hour. Now we are having a third speech. I am not objecting to the Minister replying, but it will take at least an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half. I am entitled to raise this protest, and I am going to raise it, and I do not care who says "No," or who says "Aye." I protest against an obligation entered into between the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon and others being departed from. It is not a fair thing.


As soon as the Minister has replied on the matter, I propose to go on to other subjects.


can assure my hon. Friend I will occupy a very few moments. I only want to reply to one or two points. I said yesterday, and I can only repeat, that the negotiations with regard to the loan can only take place—


It is the amount they asked.


That is varied from time to time.


Can the hon. Gentleman give us an idea of the smallest amount?


No, I cannot. It will be for the Government to judge when they have satisfied their liabilities. An amusing thing about the criticisms which have been levelled at the agreement is that they are absolutely contradictory. The right hon. Gentleman says that it is so insignificant that it is hardly worth talking about.




You Scotch Members ought to behave.


The Minister has given way.


There is another point involved. We on the Rack Benches have been allotted about two hours altogether. An honourable understanding was entered into—and the right hon. Gentleman took part in it—that we should get the rest of the time for the various matters we want to raise. Here is the Russian Debate again.


I want to protest against this method of carrying on business. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon deliberately entered into an agreement which the right lion. Gentleman the Member for Bewdley (Mr. Baldwin) would have carried out. That agreement was that two short speeches were to be made. I never objected to the hon. Member for York (Sir J. Marriott) addressing the House. We listened to a speech from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lloyd George) that I thought would be short, and now he is intervening again. It is a most unfair proceeding, and I am not going to stand it.


The right hon. Gentleman is not entitled to make another speech. He can only put a question, and if the Minister give way, the matter is out of my hands. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will have regard to the other Members who wish to speak.


I only want to correct one statement. The hon. Gentleman said I said this was an insignificant matter. I never said so. I believe someone said it, but I did not.


I certainly understood the right hon. Gentleman to say this was worthless, and at the same time he seemed to think it was a very serious thing. When we have future Debates on the matter I shall be glad to meet all the arguments which are raised. I should like to say now to the right hon. Gentleman that he really seems to have forgotten all the previous negotiations which have taken place. He forgets the postponed settlement of these claims, in the case of the Hague for two years. The difference between the Genoa proposals and this is that this is to be a signed agreement. At Genoa there was a guarantee of a loan too. The sum under Export Credits was to be increased and the period under Trade Facilities extended. Does anybody really maintain that if we came down to this House with such proposals that that would not be another way of guaranteeing a loan? This is the direct way of doing it. At the same time, we have secured for this House every right and have safeguarded everything until there is a satisfactory agreement on the part of the bondholders. Hon. Members may scoff at that, but I can assure them that a large number of bondholders are in close communication with the Soviet delegates. But here we make a satisfactory beginning. We set up the machinery and we give an inducement to the Soviet Government to settle rapidly, because not one penny will be guaranteed to them until there is a settlement on all these points. We shall have other opportunities of discussing this matter, and I only hope I shall have more serious arguments to meet.